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McAllister v. District of Columbia


January 26, 1995


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Steffen W. Graae, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman and King, Associate Judges, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King

KING, Associate Judge: This appeal challenges the granting of a summary judgment motion against Alejandro S. McAllister, who was seeking damages stemming from a mistaken entry on a Judgment and Commitment Order ("Order") made by the courtroom clerk and signed by the sentencing Judge, that resulted in his being imprisoned, after a criminal conviction, for a period of time far in excess of the maximum term permitted for that offense. In this action against the District of Columbia ("District"), McAllister alleged theories of negligence and false imprisonment on the part of the sentencing Judge, the courtroom clerk, the Legal Assistance Branch of the Superior Court, and the Department of Corrections, and sought judgment against the District on the basis of respondeat superior. McAllister also sought judgment against the District for unjust imprisonment under the provisions of D.C. Code § 1-1221 et seq. We hold that the Judge and the courtroom clerk are protected by judicial immunity, that McAllister failed to show that the District personnel had a duty to discover and correct the Judge's sentencing error, and that § 1-1221 does not apply under the circumstances of this case. Therefore, we affirm.


McAllister was indicted on August 17, 1988, for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, destruction of property, first-degree theft, and receiving stolen property. He pleaded guilty to attempted unauthorized use of a motor vehicle ("UUV") which, pursuant to D.C. Code § 22-103, carried a maximum penalty of one year. However, on the Order which the Judge later signed, the courtroom clerk recorded a sentence of "time not to exceed five years." McAllister had served two years and 329 days before the mistake was brought to the attention of the sentencing Judge who corrected it immediately, thus permitting McAllister's release.


Scope of Review

The trial court may enter summary judgment if, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, it determines (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact, and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 41 (D.C. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 62 L. Ed. 2d 761, 100 S. Ct. 1028 (1980); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c) (1993). On appeal, we conduct our own review of the record to determine whether the trial court properly applied those standards. West End Tenants Ass'n v. George Washington Univ., 640 A.3d 718, 725 (D.C. 1994).



Judicial Immunity *fn1

It is well settled that Judges are immune from liability "for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction." Cunningham v. District of Columbia, 584 A.2d 573, 576 (D.C. 1990) (citation omitted) (act is "judicial" if a Judge typically performs it and the affected parties dealt with the Judge in his or her judicial capacity). The acts of which McAllister complains are integral parts of the judicial process, and the sentencing Judge unquestionably acted within proper judicial capacity and jurisdiction in sentencing McAllister. Therefore the sentencing Judge is immune from liability. See Cunningham, supra, 584 A.2d at 576 ("immunity applies however erroneous the act . . . and however injurious . . . its consequences. . .").

In the District of Columbia the immunity conferred on Judges has been extended to a variety of public officials and employees; *fn2 however, we have never considered whether a courtroom clerk should be clothed with this protection. *fn3 The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has, however, extended judicial immunity to courtroom clerks, holding:

If immunity were not extended to clerks, courts would face the danger that disappointed litigants, blocked by the doctrine of absolute immunity from suing the Judge directly would vent their wrath on clerks, court reporters, and other judicial adjuncts.

Sindram v. Suda, 300 U.S. App. D.C. 110, 112, 986 F.2d 1459, 1461 (1993) (citations omitted). We agree, and accordingly, we hold that because of the doctrine's underlying purpose, court clerks, like Judges, should be immune from damage suits for performing tasks that are integrally related to the judicial process. See Forrester, supra, 484 U.S. at 227 ("immunity is justified . . . by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches.") (emphasis omitted); Sindram, supra, 300 U.S. App. D.C. at 112, 986 F.2d at 1461 (judicial immunity extends to auxiliary court personnel performing tasks that are integral to the judicial process). *fn4

Since the Judge and the courtroom clerk are not liable, neither is the District. *fn5 The immunity enjoyed by the Judge and courtroom clerk is imputed to the District. See Powell v. District of Columbia, 602 A.2d 1123, 1127 (D.C. 1992) (municipality entitled to employee's defense under the respondeat superior theory); Calhoun v. City of Providence, 120 R.I. 619, 390 A.2d 350, 356 (R.I. 1978) ("If a Judge must weigh each decision against the possibility that he will precipitate tort litigation against the state . . . judicial freedom and independence are . . . affected"); cf. Cunningham, supra, 584 A.2d at 578.


We now turn to the claim relating to the alleged negligence of the Legal Assistance Bureau and the Department of Corrections. *fn6 In order to prevail in negligence, McAllister must make out a prima facie claim showing that the District, through its agents, had a duty to discover and correct errors in orders. See Powell ex rel. Ricks v. District of Columbia, 634 A.2d 403, 406 (D.C. 1993); Beard v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 587 A.2d 195, 199-200 (D.C. 1991); Toy v. District of Columbia, 549 A.2d 1, 6 (D.C. 1988). This he has failed to do; thus we hold that the trial court correctly granted the motion for summary judgment. See Nader, supra, 408 A.2d at 41.

McAllister acknowledges that he could identify no District of Columbia Municipal Regulations, statute, or case law, which impose the duty, on the named District agents, to discover and correct errors in sentencing orders. *fn7 He argues, however, that if he were able to ascertain the identity of specific District personnel, through discovery, this would enable him to establish the duty. The District responds, and we agree, that the identity of the District's agents responsible for processing judgment and commitment orders is not a disputed material fact for purposes of summary judgment. The District has never contended that such employees do not exist; rather, it maintains that their identity is not material since there has been no showing by McAllister that those, or any, District employees had a ministerial duty to correct errors in those Orders. In short, having failed to establish such a duty on the part of any District employee, summary judgment was proper. West End Tenants Ass'n, supra, 640 A.2d at 725 (disputed factual issue must be material to avoid summary judgment); Fulwood v. Porter, 639 A.2d 594, 600 (D.C. 1994); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986) (mere allegation of factual dispute will not frustrate motion for summary judgment, and only disputed facts that would affect the outcome of the suit will preclude the entry of summary judgment).

Moreover, McAllister's assertion that he was unable to effectively oppose the summary judgment motion because he was denied discovery lacks merit. Superior Court Rule of Civil Procedure 56 (f) ("Rule 56 (f)") affords protection against the premature or improvident grant of summary judgment, and a non-movant can invoke this protection by filing an affidavit stating how discovery would enable him or her to effectively oppose the summary judgment motion. *fn8 See Guthrie v. Sawyer, 970 F.2d 733, 738 (10th Cir. 1992) (summary judgment not improvidently granted when non-movant fails to file a Rule 56 (f) affidavit). McAllister did not file a Rule 56 (f) affidavit explaining how discovery would provide "facts essential to justify . . . opposition;" therefore, the trial court properly granted summary judgment. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (f), (supra) , note 8; see also Mid-South Grizzlies v. National Football League, 720 F.2d 772, 780 n.4 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 467 U.S. 1215, 81 L. Ed. 2d 364, 104 S. Ct. 2657 (1984) ("most courts which have considered the issue agree that filing an affidavit is necessary for the preservation of a Rule 56 (f) contention that summary judgment should be delayed pending discovery"). *fn9

McAllister's reliance on Woodward v. District of Columbia, 387 A.2d 726 (D.C. 1978) is misplaced. There, the plaintiff sued the District on the theory of respondeat superior based on a false arrest by two experienced police officers. We reversed the trial court's order directing a verdict in the District's favor because (1) the law prohibited arrest based on a facially invalid warrant; and (2) as a matter of law, the arresting officers were charged with notice of its invalidity. Id. Woodward, however, specifically identified the District's agents who had a clearly defined statutory duty to exercise care in executing a warrant. Here, the District's agents are not charged with knowledge of the error because, as McAllister acknowledges, the Order was facially valid. Thus, Woodward has no applicability to the facts presented here.

Unjust Imprisonment

Finally, McAllister argues that he was entitled to relief under the District's Unjust Imprisonment Act of 1980, *fn10 and summary judgment on this count was improper. *fn11 The District's Unjust Imprisonment Act is limited in scope and is applicable only to persons who are convicted and subsequently imprisoned for offenses which they did not commit, and who can prove by clear and convincing evidence that they did not commit the offense for which they were incarcerated, or any other similarly imprisonable offense. D.C. Code § 1-1222 (1992); REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY ON BILL 3-251 at 6 (1980) (comments of Councilmember Clarke). Based on its limited applicability, we agree with the District that McAllister has no cognizable rights under this statute. First, McAllister's sentence was corrected, his conviction was not "reversed or set aside" [and he was not] pardoned upon the stated ground of innocence and unjust conviction." D.C. Code § 1-1222 (1), (supra) note 10. Second, McAllister entered a guilty plea to attempted UUV - an admission of guilt *fn12 - putting him outside the protection of the Act because (1) attempted UUV is an offense against the District; and (2) the Act specifically denies relief to persons who entered guilty pleas. D.C. Code § 1-1225, (supra) note 10. For all these reasons, summary judgment on the count was proper. *fn13


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